Revisiting The Magic Of Shyam Benegal, The Pioneer Of Middle Cinema In India

“I feel cinema has a role that goes much deeper than simple entertainment.”

–Shyam Benegal

These are the words of Shyam Benegal, one of the great directors India has ever seen. Benegal's ideology is clearly manifested in the kind of films he makes; its story, characters, set up, just about everything. His films are more than just moving images or simple stories. They have the power to make you contemplate on several social issues that lie cloaked under the garb of poverty, societal hierarchies, and social groups.  

He was one of the pioneers of the new movement seen in the Indian parallel cinema during the 1970s and is credited with the discovery of a new genre, the Middle Cinema. Benegal likes to call it Alternate Cinema. One can see the influences of Satyajit Ray’s filmmaking in the works of Shyam Babu and this is the reason why this rightful heir chooses to depict such intense social complexities on screen through wonderful characters. 

Benegal was however not a filmmaker always. The 1950s saw Benegal as a copywriter working for Lintas Advertising, followed by a quick stint in another advertising firm. Shyam Benegal’s passion for filmmaking was, however, reaching new heights as he directed close to 900 documentaries and short films over his professional years in the advertising industry.

His first widespread acclamation came with a documentary titled A Child of the Streets. The veteran’s journey in cinema has earned him quite a lot of achievements and awards.

Today, this self-made director turns 82 and wishes to see a change in the way parallel cinema is treated in India. Indian cinema owes a lot to him and as an expression of gratitude, we would like to remember Benegal’s works that have become immortal in the history of Indian Cinema.

Ankur: The Seedling
ankur-compressedThis neo-realistic film by Benegal showcases the powerful and dirty picture of feudal tyranny and sexual oppression of the weak. It beautifully captures the essence of landlord politics, social inequalities, gender equations while giving out strong social messages through symbols and character built up throughout the film. With three National Awards and 45 International Awards, the movie is nothing less of a masterpiece.

Bhumika
bhumika-1976-01-g-compressedWhen a film boasts of such powerful actors in the face of Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar and Anant Nag, it cannot be just another drama on celluloid. Benegal’s Bhumika saw all of them together in pivotal roles. Like other works of Benegal, Bhumika focussed on an integral issue – an individual’s search for self-fulfilment. A woman’s melancholic search for true love, which takes her to four different men, is beautifully crafted by Benegal through recurrent references to the contemporary society, buried emotions behind the glitter of the film industry and thorough gender roles in the society.

Junoon
junoon-compressedNo one else could have displayed the aesthetics of the Bengal Presidency of the 1940s the way Benegal had painted on the screen’s canvas. Shashi Kapoor, as the fierce and unwavering Pathan, took everyone by storm through the depiction of an obstinate Nawab who develops an obsession for an Anglo-Indian woman, Ruth, played by Nafisa Ali.

Mandi
mandi-compressedAnother stroke by Benegal, here you find the veteran dealing with closely knitted social themes concerning the social farce with respect to issues of morality. The movie narrates about the ordeals of a brothel’s madam when some political groups plan to usurp her land. One thing is sure to be revealed and that is our society’s hypocrisy.

Zubeidaa
zubeidaaThe movie, though miles away from the true genius of Benegal, was a big leap in the industry, which was at the time high on mindless songs and dance sequences. Karisma Kapoor completely surprised the audience as the protagonist, with her subtle performance as Zubeidaa, a woman with a feisty personality on her quest to find happiness amidst fulfilling societal expectations and customs. It was based on the true story of Zubeida Begum, the mother of famous critic, Khalid Mohammed.

Well Done Abba
well-done-abba-compressedThis one is an intelligent take on the current state of the country and it mixes elements of both commercial and parallel cinema. The film, through its satirical tone, touches upon several loopholes evident in the government bodies.

Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India
samvidhaan-compressedAnyone interested in discovering the true history behind the making of the Constitution of India, world’s largest democracy, then this 10-part TV mini-series is the right thing to watch.

Shyam Benegal’s works have been powerful social commentaries and that is what makes him unique. He has given a new direction to art cinema in India and his contribution to the Indian Film Industry is commendable.  These were just highlights of his highly eventful life and a lot remains to be said as legends are not written in just a few words.

We wish him all the happiness today as he turns yet another leaf in his life. Once again, a very happy birthday, sir.

To sum up his films in his own words:

“I discovered what cinema was at a very young age, of its ability to create an entirely new world, a world that’s completely of its own.”

–    Shyam Benegal

– Gladis Monteiro

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